Yours, Mine, and Ours

Prior to my career at Portland State University, I enjoyed all the career benefits of a creative writing degree: cooking, serving, managing—anything with an apron. Then I moved to Portland with the intent to find a “real” job. Have you ever bought Tupperware from a fresh-faced go-getter in the grocery store? Did that person seem like a fleshy canvas of excited desperation stretched over a beaten down and creakily animated theme park robot? That was me, and I lasted two weeks before I quit and filled out my PSU application.
Of the courses offered, I gravitated toward the comics studies postbaccalaureate program. The Eisner-winning staff was welcoming and helpful as I regained my book legs over the 2015 academic year. Outside a few greatest hits, I departed from comics around 2002 and did not pick up a Marvel or DC comic until I started up again at PSU, leaving me woefully unprepared to contend with classmates that never put them down. Unprepared for the elite set of specialized comics knowledge my peers would exhibit, I met that wonderful stereotype of comic book condescension. Naturally, I considered myself immune; after all, I had an English degree, loved Dungeons & Dragons and many videogames, and welcomed new knowledge about any beloved “waste of time” media. These skills and attributes aside, many considered my analysis of Watchmen picayune or brushed aside my enjoyment of the first Civil War. My initial reaction was one of pained exclusion. Luckily, I am (somewhat) an adult and kept my feelings safe inside. I had found several literary titles since high school, making my return plunge less jarring than anticipated, but I wanted to understand how my peers could be so prickly and defensive of their comics knowledge. The more time I spent learning the history and process of the medium’s publication, the more I became aware of the roots for such superiority.
The more you learn about many mainstream comics, the more you come to understand how these stories and characters interweave, challenge one another, and suffer (or enjoy) endless reincarnation through generations of creators. The history of comics publishing is textured by ups and downs—betrayals and triumphs endured by generations of creators often chewed up and ejected by their beloved industry. Combine an oft-challenged publishing history with the cultural (mis)conception of comics as a medium for children or the intellectually deviant, and this defensiveness becomes a clear reaction from individuals unwilling to tolerate a dying cultural norm.
There is an academic out for the tenacious: the majority of comics lovers are all about sharing. When you have no idea what is good and strike out blindly to receive welts from the barbs of the knowledgeable, inquisition will get you everywhere. My solution became endless questioning. When meeting the snark of a comrade, I would simply ask, “What do you like? What are you reading?” When amiability is out of reach, the beautiful culture of sharing and exploration surrounding comics is infectious; although someone may not like you, they may lend you something incredible (or at least make a recommendation).
Of course, such social tai chi is mostly unnecessary, and your average student of comics will welcome you right along into their world and help you craft your own. In the Ooligan program such supportive and aggressively collective sharing is in the older, more academically “respected” vein. Though we have yet to publish a graphic narrative, the excited community around the printed word exists to show no stopping in the modern crystallization of trade publishing.
This is the power of storytelling, and comics are unique in their articulation and audience. Comics have always been and continue to be a massively important medium for storytelling and meaning creation, constantly traversing the boundary of trade publication into the educational, intersectional, and literary markets. Understanding and articulating this distinction has become a joy of mine (even lacking a mental encyclopedia of every Green Lantern), as the true focus of comics creation and advocacy stands outside superiority and judgment to embrace and create the new under the equally unique watch of comics lovers.

Mr. Wolverine, meet Citizen Kane: On the Origins of Corporate Book-to-Film Adaptations

As Ooligan Press gears up to launch its first academic journal, C47: A Film Journal, with the help of the PSU English department, some of us here at the press are thinking more thoroughly about the connection between publishing and cinema—and one of the first things that comes to mind is that elusive cash cow, the book-to-film adaptation.

Today’s film adaptation landscape is dominated by jumbo-budget serial productions from Big Five publishers—Random House et al—and other media juggernauts, especially comics publishers like Marvel Entertainment. But it’s worth noting that nearly 100 years before today’s novel- and comics-fueled blockbusters, one publisher tried to create successful films from those very same genres.

As founder and chair of the mega-media conglomerate Hearst Corporation, William Randolph Hearst was one of the first publishers to launch a film production company. In 1915, following on his previous year’s successful newsreel syndicate, International Picture Service, Hearst founded the International Film Service (IFS), an animation studio intended to transform various Hearst Corporation funnies into “living comic strips”—animated films generally less than five minutes long.

The public perceived Hearst as a king of sensational journalism, so it seems like a natural move for him to found an animation company and further contribute to the sensationalism and spectacle that made him a tycoon. However, after high costs incurred while producing numerous episodes for eleven titles—including one adaptation of comics’ most famous non-lasagna-obsessed cat, Krazy Kat—the studio was effectively doomed when Hearst fired its entire staff in 1918 to recoup revenue lost from his indirect support of the German World War I effort.

Imploding IFS seemed to buoy Hearst’s pockets, and later that same year, Hearst founded Cosmopolitan Productions with the righteously named Adolph Zukor, founder and then-president of Paramount Pictures. Similar to his plans for IFS, Hearst wanted Cosmopolitan Productions to adapt source material from his sizable media holdings, including the most popular stories from Cosmopolitan magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Harper’s Bazaar. Although Hearst parted ways with Paramount in 1923, Cosmopolitan Productions went on to produce a total of eighty-seven films before folding in 1939—the same year that two larger-than-life book-to-film adaptations, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, swept through American cinemas hotter than a trans–Georgia-Kansas wildfire. At that point, Hearst was effectively finished with film, with a minor coda coming two years later, when he waged vicious legal and journalistic smear campaigns to unsuccessfully stop the release of a film based on his life story, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

Barring technical limitations on film and animation production in the early twentieth century, perhaps Hearst’s film companies didn’t find towering success with comics and popular fiction—success like today’s Marvel- and Random House-sourced adaptations enjoy—because his adaptations focused on material with short-term appeal. Although Hearst was smart to capitalize on serializable material, the limitations of early animation technology kept International Film Service from transforming Krazy Kat into a long-length, high-quality animated series. Likewise, perhaps Hearst would’ve achieved greater films if Cosmopolitan Productions had focused on adapting serial novels instead of serialized sources.

Although Ooligan Press has yet to wade into the adaptation biz, one of our reprints, Ricochet River, was adapted into a 1998 film starring a young Kate Hudson and that kid from the Free Willy movies. However, with dynamic contemporary stories like The Wax Bullet War and Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before coming out regularly, it won’t be long before you’ll see “Original novel available from Ooligan Press” somewhere in the credits of a Hollywood-produced flick.